Monday, January 08, 2007

Having Fun With Winter Camping (part I)

Call me crazy, but I actually do camp out in the snow. I didn’t enjoy camping or hiking as a kid, but it has kind of grown on me throughout the years, especially as I work with Scout groups. For the boys, it’s a great adventure. And it doesn’t have to be unpleasant either. All it takes is knowledge and preparation.

The main things you have to know are how to keep warm and how to stay safe. The first principle of staying warm is staying dry. In the summer we go swimming to cool down. Our bodies sweat as part of an efficient natural cooling system. Water cools skin much faster than air of the same temperature. Get wet and you will get cooler. Get dry and you will get warmer.

But it’s not always easy to stay dry when playing in the snow. If it’s snowing or you’re wallowing around in the snow, you can get wet from the outside in. If you’re working at building a snow shelter, or tromping around (or skiing) on a sunny winter day, you can get wet from the inside out. Either way, getting wet is bad because it begins to cool you down. When outdoor temperatures are cool enough to cause hypothermia, you need to stay dry.

One of the keys here is understanding how different fabrics handle moisture. Rule #1: cotton kills. Cotton towels are great because they absorb and retain water, but that’s not what you want your clothes to do when doing cold weather camping. Blue jeans, T-shirts, and jersey socks are the worst things to wear when winter camping. They’re made of 100% cotton. They absorb moisture readily, and then hold it against your body. Wool can get wet, and yet keep you warm, but it can be uncomfortable and itchy.

Synthetic fabrics are the best thing to be wearing when doing outdoor winter activities. Polypropylene is probably the best, but it’s expensive. Polyester clothing is plentiful and can be cost efficient. Acrylic is good. A variety of other synthetics are useful as well. Consider this when selecting the layer closest to your skin; your underwear and socks. In fact, consider it in every layer.

Speaking of layers, layering clothing is another essential key to staying dry and warm. Multiple thin layers are better than one super thick snowmobile suit. If you get warm, you simply peal off a layer or two. If you get cool, you add layers. If you’re too hot in a snowmobile suit, you’re out of luck, because if you take it off, you’re going to be too cool. Of course, your exterior layer should be something that repels moisture.

Good boots that keep external moisture out but don’t hold internal moisture against the skin are a must. Also, your boots need to work with your snow pants to keep snow from falling in around your legs. Even with very good boots and socks, your feet can still get cold just from standing around on ice and snow. If you’re going to be standing or sitting, it’s good to have some kind of insulation buffer to stand or sit on. A chunk of wood or styrofoam can work.

And to top off this discussion, bring good headgear. A knit beanie cap (made of synthetic yarn) will keep you surprisingly warm. The saying goes that if your fingers are cold, put on your hat. A vast amount of your body’s heat is expelled through your head and the back of your neck. As your body starts to get too cold it draws blood away from the extremities in order to keep the core and vital organs warm. Putting on your hat will keep a lot of heat in. Of course, if you’re too warm, you may want to take your hat off.

Bring extra clothing. Don’t worry about bringing too much unless you have to pack it on your back. If you’re going to be sleeping outside, bring a dry set of clothing to sleep in. Make sure you change into dry clothes before bedding down. There is little that is more miserable than freezing in a sleeping bag in the snow.

Now that you know how to deal with the outside of your body, let’s discuss the inside. Your body needs plenty of fuel to generate sufficient heat for winter camping. It is also vitally important to be adequately hydrated. You may not be sweating like you do in the summer, but you need to continually drink plenty of water to help regulate your body temperature.

Eat foods that are high in complex carbohydrates for maximum heat generation. Think hard beans, like the kind commonly found in chili. Avoid alcohol and sugary stuff. Outdoor cooking and food preparation takes much longer in cold weather (even two or three times longer), so consider doing most of your food preparation at home.

Some good links for finding out more about this stuff are:

In the next part, I will discuss snow shelters and why it is important to understand different snow conditions. Winter camping can be lots of fun. But it takes lots of work. I sometimes complain to my wife that an overnight winter campout takes as much work as a whole week of summer camp. But it’s an adventure that shouldn’t be missed.


Jay Harvey said...

Thanks for posting this info...I'm glad I found it. I'm a Varsity Scout leader in Salt Lake and would like to take the scouts camping and sleep in snow shelters. Where do you recommend going?

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jay, I live in northern Weber County, so most of my knowledge of where to go winter camping is based on that area. There are a variety of places to go in my area.

I would suggest that one of the best ways to find out about good winter camping venues in your area would be to attend your district's monthly Scouter Roundtable meeting and ask other scoutmasters where they go.

Last weekend, we went up to a private cabin near Monte Cristo that is owned by the family of our New Scout Patrol advisor. My 11-year-old son and I built a shelter in the front yard there.

Next weekend I will run my district's Klondike Derby at Weber County's North Fork Park. We have done this for many years, so that place has seen many, many shelters.

I have taken my Scouts winter camping at a city park that is about a mile from my house (with the city's permission, of course). The foothills north of my town also have several good locations for winter camping.

We have taken our troop winter camping on the shores of Willard Bay and on Antelope Island.

One year when we had enough snow, we built snow caves in the back of our church parking lot. (Check with your ecclesiastical leader on that, as regulations may prevent it.)

Please note that it costs a fee to use a city, county, or state recreational area. Most of the time, we end up paying about $1 per person.

There are plenty of locations available for winter camping. Just use your imagination.

The main points are to look for an area that you can get permission to use, has low (or no) avalanche danger, is accessible by means available to you, and has enough snow to make it useful.

I'll qualify that last point. You don't really need any snow to go winter camping. You can camp in tents or lean-to shelters. I have done this, but please note that it is very difficult to pound tent stakes into frozen ground. If you do manage to get them into the ground, it can be a chore to get them out.

Ask around, look around, and I'm sure you will find places to camp in the winter. Train the boys and the go. Have great adventures and be safe.